Monday, February 11, 2013

Alcohol and Samuel Pepys

Alchohol and Samuel Pepys: Drunk and Disorderly? - by Grace Elliot
Thence Jenings and I into London (it being through heat of the sun a great thaw and dirty) to show our bills of return, and coming back drank a pint of wine at the Star, Cheapside.
Samuel Pepys diary.

When Pepys casually mentions drinking a pint of wine in the same sentence as the thaw and the pub, it makes me smile. Apparently, Pepys didn't think imbibing such a quantity of alcohol was anything out of the ordinary, which arguably it wasn't.
Samuel Pepys
In the modern age the majority of people reading this post will have access to clean, sanitised drinking water - but this wasn't the case in the 17th century world. Although germ theory (disease is caused by micro-organisms) wasn't discovered until the late 19th century, instinct must have warned people that drinking dirty water led to awful stomach upsets. As such, alcohol was consumed more widely, by everyone from children and servants, to labourers and royalty, and perceived as being safer to drink than water.

Even though people didn't understand why, they perhaps recognised the result that the brewing process made water safer to drink.  Of course we now know that boiling water, fermenting and the alcohol itself have disinfectant properties on some water-borne bugs.
Samuel Pepys- manuscript volumes of his diaries
Was the Population Permanently Drunk?

However, 17th century alcohol wasn't as strong as the modern equivalent. One reason for this was that the yeasts weren't as hardy as our modern varieties, and less tolerant of the alcohol produced during fermentation. This meant that the brews were naturally limited in strength, because once they reached a certain level of alcohol, the yeast died and the process stopped. Incidentally, these yeasts made for a cloudy drink, rather than the clear ales and wines of today, but the cloudiness was disguised by metal tankards or frosted glass.

As an aside, the small beer or wine produced was much sweeter than modern brews. Again, this was because the yeast died before all the sugar was converted to alcohol. Also, it is interesting to reflect that grain stores were vulnerable to spoilage by rodents -so the safest way to protect your harvest was to convert it to beer, which preserved the sugar and calorie content! (Don't forget, sugar was hideously expensive commodity.)
A public house named after Samuel Pepys
So was the population permanently drunk? Perhaps. But one knock on effect for Pepys could be that the quantity of alcohol he consumed contributed to the formation of his bladder stones.

And finally:
In this excerpt we learn that Pepys drank at the Star in Cheapside. Amongst the general population literacy rates were low and people liked places that were easily identifiable with a picture. Hence pubs, such as the Star, Bull or Bell, denoted with a painting on their sign were popular. 
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About the author: Grace Elliot
Grace Elliot leads a double life as a veterinarian by day and author of historical romance by night. As well as being passionate about history, Grace is obsessed by all things feline and is growing to love bearded dragons.
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  1. I liked your informative post, Grace. Thanks. Your comments about less alcohol content struck a chord. On a trip to Northern Italy a few years ago, I dined with a large group. On the table were bottles of red wine lined up for our pleasure, unlabeled. I had six glasses of the red table wine (which was wonderful!)and incurred not a buzz that night nor a headache the next day. Normally I would have one glass and feel the effects and stop but with this I had none. Of course, we were eating well, too, but the other folks there told me that the wine the Italians drink from the barrel (which is what this was) has less alcohol content and no sulfites (hence, no headaches for me). What they export has the sulfites. And, I've noticed the alcohol content on red wine (I love Merlot) has been creeping up in recent years from 12% to 16%.

  2. Hang on!
    "Amongst the general population literacy rates were low and people liked places that were easily identifiable with a picture. Hence pubs, such as the Star, Bull or Bell, denoted with a painting on their sign were popular."

    I think you're talking absolute twaddle.

    How can you say people liked places that were easily identifiable with a picture? If you live in the area you know where the pubs are. No matter what they're called, or what their sign is. It's "the one on the corner". Or "the one down from the crossroads heading towards the river" It's only if you have to give directions to a stranger to the area that the sign becomes important.


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